Seven German Bishops Ask Vatican to Block Intercommunion Proposal

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and six other bishops have protested against the proposal, which was approved by the German bishops’ conference in February.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne.
Cardinal Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne. (photo: Federico Gambarini/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

VATICAN CITY— The recent proposal by Germany’s bishops to allow some Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion under certain conditions is meeting serious resistance in Germany, as well as opposition from some Church leaders elsewhere.

On April 4, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper reported that seven German bishops — including Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne — have written an urgent appeal to the Vatican in protest against the proposal.

According to German media, the seven bishops said in their letter that they believe the proposal contradicts Catholic doctrine, undermines Church unity and exceeds the competence of the bishops’ conference. The letter, leaked to the media April 4, was sent last month to both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, the president of the German bishops’ conference, sent a letter to Germany’s bishops Wednesday, written and released immediately after the seven bishops’ letter was leaked. In it, the cardinal defended the bishops’ conference’s decision, saying it was consistent with theological and ecumenical texts and canon law.

Cardinal Marx, who according to a prelate invariably invokes the Pope to justify his positions, also said it was the result of “the encouragement of Pope Francis to take further steps in ecumenism.”

At their spring conference in February, Germany’s bishops voted in favor of producing a guide, or pastoral handout, to allow some Protestant spouses to receive Holy Communion under certain circumstances.

They voted overwhelmingly to offer guidelines allowing a Protestant partner of a Catholic to receive the Eucharist if, after having made a “serious examination” of conscience with a priest or another person with pastoral responsibilities, the partner “affirms the faith of the Catholic Church,” wishes to end “serious spiritual distress,” and has a “longing to satisfy a hunger for the Eucharist.”

At the time, Cardinal Marx said the guide would only be a “pastoral handout” and that the intention is not to “change any doctrine.” He said the proposal rejects any path for Protestant spouses to conversion, otherwise known as an “ecumenism of return.” It also leaves much discretion of the local bishop who may establish new laws in this area, he said.

The Register has learned that only 13 of Germany’s 67 bishops voted against the proposal, or abstained.


Four Cardinals’ Perspectives

Despite considerable comment and unease resulting from the German bishops’ proposal, very few cardinals appear willing to speak about the matter publicly.

Since the proposal was announced, the Register contacted 23 cardinals (11 in the Curia, 12 non-curial) and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, to ask if they had any concerns about the bishops’ decision and, if so, what they were and whether they would be communicating their concerns to the German episcopate.

Only four cardinals provided comment, and three of them were retired. None said they would be making any representations to the German bishops to reconsider their decision.

Among the cardinals contacted by the Register who wished to comment on the move was Cardinal Francis Arinze, the former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

“I disagree with that decision or guideline,” he simply told the Register, stressing that the “Eucharistic celebration is the supreme liturgical act of the Catholic Church.” 

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, told the Register March 15 the proposal is a “misuse” of Canon 844 (4).

The canon states that “if the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it,” Communion can be administered “to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.”

Cardinal Brandmüller called the proposal a “trick.”

“You can’t separate the truth from the action,” he said. “The truth must be consistent with the actions” and the German bishops are trying to “separate” them, he said, adding that this is “intellectually dishonest.”

Similarly, Cardinal Müller said in an interview with the German Catholic newspaper Tagespost the bishops’ proposal is a “rhetorical trick” pulled on believers, most of whom he noted are not theologians.

He stressed that interdenominational marriage is “not an emergency situation,” and that “neither the Pope nor we bishops can redefine the sacraments as a means of alleviating mental distress and satisfying spiritual needs” as they are “effective signs of the grace of God.”

For German Cardinal Paul Cordes, the former president of the pontifical charity Cor Unum, the German bishops’ proposal “encounters serious theological obstacles” and goes against Church teaching “based on the Bible and Tradition.”

In March 14 comments to the Register, he referred to “well-attested ecclesiastical tradition” going back to the early Church when Eucharistic Communion was always “the visible sign of ecclesial communion.”

Cardinal Cordes noted how in the seventh century, when Catholics reportedly traveled to “heretical regions,” they took the body of the Lord with them, and “heretics did the same” with their understanding of the Eucharist when visiting Catholic communities.

In contrast to the “erroneous teachings and heresies” that have arisen in the Church over this issue, he said “the principle has always applied: everyone belongs where he or she receives Holy Communion.”

This is the “faith and practice of the early Church,” he said: “The reception of the Lord’s body is more authentic for witnessing to the faith than all the words.”

He added, “Eucharistic Communion and ecclesial communion belong so closely together that it is generally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive the sacrament of Communion without sharing [ecclesial] communion.”


More Supportive View

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, although reticent about entering into the specifics of this controversy, showed some sympathy for the move.

In email comments to the Register March 19, he recounted an experience he had when on a long trip with the then-presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. After discussing socio-economic and political issues on which they had worked together, Cardinal Napier asked the Methodist leader to explain his personal belief in the Eucharist, as opposed to what his denomination taught.

“When he finished, I had to say to him quite frankly and honestly: ‘What you have just explained to me is none other than the Catholic Church’s belief and teaching on the Eucharist,’” the cardinal recalled.

“The question that now comes to mind is this: ‘What good reason would I have for not giving him Holy Communion, if he were to say he needed to receive in order to save his soul?’” the cardinal said. “Isn’t that what the directive on ecumenism says is the main reason for giving Communion, if it is spontaneously requested; if the person genuinely believes what the Catholic Church believes; if the person is deprived of ministry official of his own minister, and if there is no danger of giving serious scandal?”

Added Cardinal Napier, “Isn’t the above consideration precisely what the German bishops have in mind when they talk about ‘particular cases and certain predetermined conditions’?”


Canonical Confusion?

But key questions frequently asked and not yet addressed by the German bishops include what exactly merits a “grave necessity,” and why, if a Protestant spouse affirms the Catholic faith, does he or she simply not become Catholic?

In the view of some canonical authorities, these questions would be straightforward to answer were it not for the wording of Canon 844 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, compared to the more rigorous Canon 731 of the 1917 Code that Canon 844 replaced.

Canon 731 stated that, as the sacraments are the “principal means of sanctification and salvation” and should be “administered and received with great care and reverence,” it is “forbidden to minister the Sacraments of the Church to heretics and schismatics, even though they are in good faith and ask for them, unless they have first renounced their errors and been reconciled to the Church.” 

Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said the new canon “differs sharply from the canon law that preceded it,” allowing for “conditions that were probably envisioned as sufficient to keep such exceptions narrow but which, in practice, can be so broadly understood as to countenance what the German bishops’ conference is doing.”

He told the Register March 29 that Canon 844 has “several terminological problems” that make it an “urgent candidate for reform.”

He said a “key interpretative flaw” lies behind the German bishop’s application of this canon, and it is the same one that led to recent attacks on Canon 915, which forbids administering Holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, “namely, the idea that an individual’s conscience is the ultimate criterion of one’s eligibility for the sacrament.”

Such a view, Peters added, demands that Church ministers “abandon their responsibility” to assess objective canonical criteria to judge whether a Catholic is eligible to receive certain sacraments. But when Church leaders “abandon those duties,” he added, “it is the faithful who suffer, some by being confirmed in their errors or sins, others by being led to wonder whether such errors or sins are really so erroneous or sinful after all.”

Some believe the German bishops’ proposal can be traced, among other things, to the controversy over interpretations of the Pope’s post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) that admit some remarried divorcees to Holy Communion.

Peters said the proposal “might be rooted” in the exhortation, but prefers to see a more general “doctrinal confusion and disciplinary malaise that has suddenly broken out in many places.”

He noted that some episcopal policies that have followed Amoris Laetitia’s publication in 2016 “clearly violate Church teaching and not just on the Eucharist, but on penance and anointing as well, the two other sacraments treated in Canon 844.”

Disrespect for one sacrament, Peters added, “inevitably sets the stage for disrespecting all the sacraments.”


‘A Real Scandal’

Cardinal Brandmüller, one of the four cardinals to sign the dubia — five questions sent to Pope Francis aimed at clarifying the teaching of Amoris Laetitia — believes Canon 844 is consistent with Canon 731 because the later canon still requires a “Catholic understanding of the sacraments.”

Rather, for him, the problem lies in the fact that the German bishops “are supposing that the person has a Catholic understanding of the sacraments and extends this possibility to normal life situations.”

Asked whether the practice of Protestant spouses receiving Holy Communion is already commonplace in Germany and this proposal is therefore simply normalizing it, Cardinal Brandmüller said he was “sure it happens often,” adding, “It is a sign of a loss of faith in the sacrament.”

Given the matter’s significance for the Church, another question is whether latitude should be extended to merely a bishops’ conference, such as Germany’s, to decide.

Since the Second Vatican Council, some questions that touch on doctrine can be devolved to bishops’ conferences, Cardinal Brandmüller said. But  he pointed out that any such decisions must be approved by three-quarters of all bishops’ conferences, and then also approved by Rome (Cardinal Marx maintained that Vatican approval was not necessary because the German bishops’ decision was only a matter of “pastoral assistance”).

According to Cardinal Brandmüller, the current situation highlights the weakness of bishops’ conferences, which he stressed deal with matters of state and Church, and should not be concerned with issues of doctrine, morals and the liturgy that are the domain of a synod. He expressed regret that bishops’ conferences were given more authority on doctrinal matters after the Second Vatican Council.

As for the overwhelming number of bishops who voted for the move, Cardinal Brandmüller said it is “a real scandal, no question.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.